Vicious Circuits

9781503606692: Hardback
Release Date: 12th March 2019

9781503608450: Paperback
Release Date: 12th March 2019

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 248

Edition: 1st Edition

Series Post*45

Stanford University Press

Vicious Circuits

Korea’s IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century

Examining what it terms "Korea's IMF Cinema," the decade of film-making that following that country's worst-ever economic crisis, this book thinks through the transformations of global political economy attending the end of the American century.
Hardback / £77.00
Paperback / £24.99

In December of 1997, the International Monetary Fund announced the largest bailout package in its history, aimed at stabilizing the South Korean economy in response to a credit and currency crisis of the same year. Vicious Circuits examines what it terms "Korea's IMF Cinema," the decade of cinema following that crisis, in order to think through the transformations of global political economy at the end of the American century. It argues that one of the most dominant traits of the cinema that emerged after the worst economic crisis in the history of South Korea was its preoccupation with economic phenomena. As the quintessentially corporate art form—made as much in the boardroom as in the studio—film in this context became an ideal site for thinking through the global political economy in the transitional moment of American decline and Chinese ascension. With an explicit focus of state economic policy, IMF cinema did not just depict the economy; it also was this economy's material embodiment. That is, it both represented economic developments and was itself an important sector in which the same pressures and changes affecting the economy at large were at work. Joseph Jonghyun Jeon's window on Korea provides a peripheral but crucial perspective on the operations of late US hegemony and the contradictions that ultimately corrode it.

Contents and Abstracts
1Concrete Memories: Historiography, Nostalgia, and Archive in Memories of Murder
chapter abstract

This chapter examines Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder and its forceful articulation of post-IMF historical anxiety in Korea. In fictionalizing the infamously unsolved Hwaseong serial murders in the Korean countryside that occurred between 1986 and 1991, Memories of Murder employs and then jettisons detective genre conventions as a way of testing and then dismissing hermeneutic methods for making sense of the newly disorienting present. The film's interest is thus methodological, using the failure of investigation as a way drawing attention away from hermeneutic dead ends in favor of a materialist orientation in which film apparatus is understood to be the concrete product of a political economy that invariably indexes the conditions that determine it. Its historiographic method moves us then from serial to system, away from recursive killings that no one can explain toward an understanding that makes sense of larger schema.

2Company Men: Salarymen and Corporate Gangsters in Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life
chapter abstract

This chapter considers the abrupt social reorganization prompted by the IMF Crisis, focusing on the figure of the salaryman in Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy—particularly in Oldboy (2003)—and its extension in post-IMF gangster films, what I term kkangp'ae films. One of the most visible figures in the aftermath of the crisis, the despondent salaryman, having lost his job, becomes in these films a launch point for a critical effort to think abstractly about exploitation in the credit relationship in a period when national debt gave rise to consumer debt. The salaryman in these films, however, is also a reification that disavows systemic understandings of debt in favor of individual understandings that are consistently rendered intelligible as personal rather than structural pathologies. So although these films intuit the transformative changes accelerated by the IMF Crisis, they remain constrained by the reification that both accesses and limits their view.

3Segyehwa Punk: Subsistence Faming and Human Capital in Looking for Bruce Lee
chapter abstract

This chapter investigates the phenomenon of Korean punk rock as represented in Lone Kang's independent film Looking for Bruce Lee. Less a misanthropic youth and more a new kind of worker, the segyehwa punk becomes an ideal figure for a new labor logic in a globalized Korean marketplace that privileges human capital over the forms of security implicit in the false promises of lifetime employment that were once proffered by Korea's chaebŏl. Although these figures understand their relationship to the world already in globalized terms, they also disavow its material realities. The fantasy of human capital, however, can only partially elide the reality of a collapsing youth job market. Under the rubric of what I call subsistence faming, this fantasy, despite itself, reveals itself to be a survival strategy amid bleak alternatives.

4The Surface of Finance: Digital Touching in Take Care of My Cat
chapter abstract

This chapter centers the depiction of gendered labor in Jeong Jae-eun's Take Care of My Cat (2001), in which the film's five protagonists, all young women seeking to enter the workforce, seem to actively participate in the logics that make their own labor obsolete. The chapter focuses specifically on the representation of technological remediation that abounds in the film and is epitomized by a trope in which text messages among the young women appear on various diegetic surfaces, like windows and buildings. Such intermedial representations become a way of thinking about the problem of integrating the young women into a changing economy. The disparity between the growing technology and infrastructure in the film, on the one hand, and the limited prospects of the women, on the other, suggests that despite their fantasies of remediation, a more likely fate is obsolescence.

5Math Monsters: CGI, Algorithm, and Hegemony in The Host, HERs, and D-War
chapter abstract

Moving from a focus on films that foreground post-IMF social reorganization to those that seem to engage directly the systemic mechanisms of late US hegemony, the underlying material infrastructures, and protocols that facilitate and govern the new economic order in the Republic of Korea, this chapter traces the overlapping recursive logics of CGI (computer-generated imagery) cinema, US military technology, and contemporary finance, as presented explicitly in the blockbuster monster films The Host (2006) and D-War (2007), and obliquely in the independent diasporic film, HERs (2007). All of these films self-reflexively index the algorithmic and mathematical procedures that link contemporary filmmaking to military and financial technologies. As a result, the surprising interplay of what might initially seem like three discrete realms of production reveals a deeper systemic logic that has driven the attempt to reproduce US power past its expiration date.

6Wire Aesthetics: Tube Entertainment's Flops and Hegemonic Protocols
chapter abstract

This chapter investigates the wire shot, the increasingly clichéd first-person point-of-view shot of imagined wire traversal in contemporary action cinema. These reifications index while disavowing the material history of the massive physical network of subterranean and undersea cables, first built by the US military, that might serve as a figure for a desire in late US hegemony to reproduce itself at the moment of decline, in a manner similar to the British All Red Line system of telegraph cables in the late nineteenth century. Focusing on a trio of films by the Korean production company Tube Entertainment, all of which flopped at the box office, this chapter examines the way in which post-IMF Korean culture encodes the protocols of US financialization as the culmination of a long history of imbrication between transportation infrastructure, communications networks, and capital circulation.

Coda: Hegemonic Pork
chapter abstract

The coda briefly explores the afterlife and relevance of Korea's IMF Cinema in contemporary Korean cinema, looking specifically at Bong Joon-ho's second foray into Hollywood coproduction in his 2017 film Okja in relation to the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) that same year. Made in conjunction with Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and released simultaneously in theaters and on the U.S.-based streaming service Netflix, Okja is a transnational production explicitly about global commodity distribution that reflects on its own status in the global marketplace at the moment it seems about to close. Its choice of topic (global pork distribution) points to the conspicuous absence in the film, that is, China, which makes up one-half of the global pork market. Okja is thus a post-TPP film that thinks about what a world system would look like without US hegemony to center it.

Joseph Jonghyun Jeon is Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (2012).

"Vicious Circuits is a major contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between aesthetics and economics. Contemporary films of all kinds become denser with meaning and filled with surfaces that reflect back to the viewer the rapidly transforming financial world in which we find ourselves."

Min Hyoung Song
Boston College

"Compellingly argued, especially through close readings of individual films...the volume asserts convincingly that IMF cinema reflects and demonstrates the underlying themes of the transition from a world economy centered in the US to one centered in Asia...Recommended."––K. J. Wetmore Jr., CHOICE

"A bravura display of associative invention, developing new knowledge in a gymnastic and improvisational recombination of films and ideas whose secret relation was previously invisible. Like a movie, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon brings things to light in a series of brilliant images and insights."

Joshua Clover
University of California, Davis

"Vicious Circuits is not just a book about contemporary Korean cinema. It's a fine execution of cultural studies in general that I'd want to assign to my students. Each chapter showcases Jeon's eye for detail, witty phrasing, and lucid synthesis of cutting edge scholarship in a variety of fields, from film theory to critical finance and transnational American studies."

Colleen Lye, University of California